Where’s the Latin American Science Fiction?

Commenting on one of my , said that he “would love to hear from anyone who knows of any non-U.S. and non-European SF that reflects a complementary view from what used to be called ‘the developing world.'”1

He’s not alone. Where are the science-fiction authors that aren’t from the United States and Europe? Why aren’t they as well-known as their U.S. and European peers?

This week, late to the party as usual, I finally got a hold of my first anthology to try to get at this question, a book from 2003 called Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain. I confess that I’ve only just begun to read the stories in the book, but a comment in the introduction is worth mentioning all by itself. According to the editors,

most bookstores in Latin America and Spain that do have a science fiction section stock mostly translations into Spanish or Portuguese of the European and North American classics. Regional authors are not yet being seriously cultivated by publishers, who see little profitability in marketing domestic SF, both because there is insufficient demand for it among the local book-buying public, and because most people’s familiarity with SF has come by way of Hollywood blockbusters and therefore, by extension, for any SF to be “good” it must be imported…. Significant cultural and economic barriers still need to be overcome so that [Spanish and Latin American SF] may enjoy the wider readership at home and abroad that they deserve.

The editors go on argue that a strong domestic tradition of science fiction exists in Spain and Latin America, and from its description, it functions an awful lot like the U.S. tradition does. Yet economics rears its head again as a dominant force in Latin American SF’s marginalization, this time at the macroeconomic level: “Texts from Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, and Spain make up the bulk of this anthology,” the editors say, in part because there are energetic communities of writers and readers in those countries—but also because the “comparatively robust economies of … the countries … have enabled them to sustain lively publishing industries.”

In other words, to take the flip side of the editors’ argument, we don’t hear much from science fiction writers from poorer countries—El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bolivia—in part because there aren’t science fiction publishing houses there; or if there are, they don’t have the clout to spread their authors’ names farther than their own borders.

I don’t know enough to truly assess the accuracy of the editors’ argument, but the part of their explanation regarding the existence of publishers seems plausible. You hear similar statements outside of science fiction, regarding the relative scarcity (obscurity?) of, say, African novelists. And it makes a great deal of sense that publishing houses simply can’t thrive in places where very few people have the disposable income to buy books in the first place.

A morsel from the first part of their argument, however, nags at me a little—that “regional authors are not yet being seriously cultivated by publishers, who see little profitability in marketing domestic SF … because there is insufficient demand for it.” Does this statement hold as true for the U.S. market for Latin American science fiction?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be yes; it’s telling, for example, that Cosmos Latinos was put out by an academic press (go Wesleyan!) rather than a commercial science fiction house. But is there really insufficient demand for science fiction—or fiction in general—from beyond our borders?2 Are there really cultural barriers to U.S. and European audiences enjoying science fiction from other parts of the world? And apart from translation costs, are the economic barriers to Tor or Del Rey publishing the work of someone living in Paraguay as high as they used to be—even in 2003?

1. It’s my understanding that the term developing world—as well as developing country, and for that matter, least-developed country—is still in widespread use. Rogeronthehill is absolutely right, however, that these are ugly terms. I wish there was a better word to describe them, one that doesn’t carry the hint of prescription.

2. David del Vecchio, owner of Idlewild Books in New York, doesn’t think so, according to this recent Bookslut with him. He argues that American audiences would be just as receptive to translated works as to works written in English: “I think customers are just looking for a good read and that we have to promote translated works the same way we promote anything else we really love.”


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